Southern poverty gets the United Nations' attention

Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty, recently toured parts of the U.S., including impoverished communities in Alabama, Georgia and West Virginia. Released last month, his report holds the U.S. government responsible for creating so much poverty — and for fixing the problem. (Photo: U.N./Loey Felipe)

In a report presented to the United Nations' Human Rights Council last month, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty called attention to the tremendous scale and consequences of poverty in the United States — and particularly in the U.S. South.

Philip Alston, who is also a law professor at New York University, pointed to a combination of political, social, and economic discrimination that keeps 40 million Americans below the official poverty threshold, with 5.3 million living in conditions of absolute poverty that resemble those of undeveloped countries.

"My report demonstrates that growing inequality, and widespread poverty which afflicts almost one child out of every five, has deeply negative implications for the enjoyment of civil and political rights by many millions of Americans," he told the council during a June 22 presentation in Geneva, Switzerland.

Alston toured the U.S. for 10 days in December 2017, and much of the report is based on his findings in the South. He visited Alabama, Georgia and West Virginia, where he witnessed the consequences of poverty in both urban and rural contexts. He also visited California, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

He was particularly struck by the rural poverty he witnessed in Alabama. In his presentation to the Human Rights Council, Alston called for swift government action in the state as he referred to the sewage that "poured into the gardens of people who could never afford to pay $30,000 for their own septic systems in an area remarkably close to the State capital."

Everywhere he went, Alston was greeted by community leaders, activists and organizers. They included Catherine Coleman-Flowers, rural development manager at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise. Coleman-Flowers invited Alston to Lowndes County, Alabama, to see rural poverty in the Southern Black Belt region.

"I wanted him to meet and talk to families that are living in what has been described as Third World conditions in America," Coleman-Flowers told Facing South in an e-mail. She said she showed Alston "raw sewage and the conditions that have yielded evidence of tropical parasites."

Lowndes County ranks among the poorest in the U.S., with a median household income under $30,000 and poverty rate of over 30 percent — double the national average. Its most impoverished communities have become notorious for their poor environmental conditions and lack of adequate sanitation. Raw sewage often pools outside of homes, dramatically increasing the risk of parasitic infections such as hookworm, which was once thought to have been eradicated from the U.S.

African Americans account for 70 percent of the population in the 18 counties that are part of Alabama's Black Belt, and about a third of them live in poverty. The region includes Dallas County, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began the famous marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, partly as a protest against the economic challenges facing African-American sharecroppers.

Indeed, the UN report did not shy away from drawing a connection between racial discrimination and poverty. It noted that African Americans are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to be unemployed, and, when employed, are likely to make less than white Americans. 

"These shameful statistics can only be explained by long-standing structural discrimination on the basis of race, reflecting the enduring legacy of slavery," the report said.

The report also addressed the stigmatization of the poor in U.S. culture, expressed in both the welfare and the criminal justice systems. It pointed to government officials' allegations that people seek to "live high on the welfare hog" and accusations of welfare fraud often made against people with disabilities, a phenomenon Alston particularly noticed in West Virginia.

The report also accuses the U.S. of using criminalization to conceal the underlying poverty problem.

"In many cities and counties, the criminal justice system is effectively a system for keeping the poor in poverty while generating revenue to fund not only the justice system but many other programmes," the report said.

Alston placed the responsibility for poverty on the U.S. government — both as the cause and the solution. "The persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power," he said in the report.

The Trump administration and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley reacted angrily to the findings, with Haley arguing that it was "patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America." The report may have even hastened the U.S. exit from the Human Rights Council, a move announced just three days before the special rapporteur's presentation in Geneva.

While Alston decried the U.S. withdrawal, Coleman-Flowers sees it as a net positive. "Nikki Haley's exit actually helped bring even more international attention to the realities of American poverty," she said.

The report caught the attention of the Poor People's Campaign, the national movement challenging poverty and systemic racism. It has called for a hearing on poverty before the Human Rights Council, citing the history of activists working to draw international attention to U.S. poverty.

"As W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X and other human rights advocates requested decades ago, we request an audience with you because our government seems unwilling or incapable of doing the right thing," the campaign wrote in an email.